Centering Indigenous “Land Back” in California Conservation

July 5, 2022

Cover photo: Still from video: “Dreaming the #IndigenousDream: NDN’s Climate Justice Campaign“ 

Over this past July 4 holiday weekend, I saw many posts on social media with the tagline #LandBack. What does it mean?

#LandBack is an emergent Native American-led social justice movement to decolonize and reclaim ancestral land — and all the cultural, spiritual, historic, linguistic, culinary and ecological value that comes with it  — for Native people today. 

As my friend Juan Dominguez, who grew up “on the rez” of the Point Arena – Manchester Band of Pomo Indians in our Northern California community, and hosts the amazing Burn the Wagon series, explains,“with Native cultures, it is very important to be able to physically experience the natural environment, because there’s no textbook. Instead, knowledge and traditions are passed down through oral culture. Without access to the places in our ancestral territories, a lot of the environmental knowledge that Native California Tribes hold can be lost.”

But a growing intersection of the #LandBack and environmental conservation movements could change this dynamic. Since 2021, a statewide coalition has convened to support California’s “30 by 30” public policy, which seeks to protect 30 percent of the state’s lands and waters by the year 2030, to ensure biodiversity, ecological health and resilience to climate change. And as Juan wrote, the California 30×30 plan is also“an opportunity to recognize the Native American people who have cared for and belonged to California’s special wild places for thousands of years.“

Three examples show the way:
First, the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians have been leading an effort to stop the logging of redwoods in Jackson Demonstration State Forest, an area just north of where I live in Mendocino County. The state of California leases parts of the forest to commercial logging companies that cut down large redwood trees up to 200 years old, bulldoze roads through the forest, pump and pollute streams and apply herbicide to kill trees like tanoaks. 

Coastal redwoods are the tallest and most carbon-sequestering trees on the planet, and are also sacred to Pomo people. As Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians tribal elder Priscilla Hunter movingly wrote in March 2021, “to us, the redwoods are sacred guardians of our ancestral territory that we turn to in prayer…. Devastation of our ancient redwood forests has paralleled the devastation inflicted upon my Coast Yuki and Northern Pomo ancestors…. The non-Native settlers clearcutting of the forest occurred simultaneously with the rape, murder and enslavement of my ancestors.” 

Because of pressure from the Pomo Land Back campaign and white environmentalist allies, the California Secretary of Natural Resources and Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Tribal Chairman recently began government-to-government talks, and the state just canceled three “timber harvest plans.” Advocates are hopeful that California could permanently protect the redwood forest and either return the land to the Pomo or comanage it.

Second, 30×30 advocates are pushing to add an area of Lake County called Walker/Condor Ridge, or “Molok Luyuk” in the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation’s language of Patwin, to the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. Federal legislation would formally rename Molok Luyuk and for the first time in history, require the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to consult with federally-recognized Native American Tribes and comanage the land with them. 

Third, in Humboldt and Siskiyou Counties, California’s implementation of the 30×30 plan could bolster the Karuk Tribe’s efforts to reinstate traditional “prescribed burning” practices to prevent wildfires on their lands, and to reclaim the sacred Katimiîn area from the U.S. Forest Service. For two decades, the Karuk Tribe has also led the “Undam the Klamath: Bring the Salmon Home” campaign, to remove four environmentally damaging dams along the Klamath River, showing how #LandBack also encompasses waterways and wildlife viewed by Indigenous people in California as living relatives.  

It’s clear that White environmentalists and climate activists who want California to meet its climate resilience and conservation goals should support these Native #LandBack efforts. There is an overwhelming body of global evidence that Indigenous people are the best conservationists and stewards of healthy natural ecosystems. As Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander women leaders Pat Anderson, Veronica Matthews and Janine Mohamed spell out,“our knowledge and cultural practices hold solutions to the climate crisis.

I am heartened to see white-led environmental organizations and government agencies increasingly valuing Indigenous voices in California and nationwide, with the leadership of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, our first ever Native American cabinet secretary

But there is so much more to do. And here in California — where more than 630,000 Native American people live today — #LandBack means so much more than just acres of land set aside and tons of carbon sequestered. It means healing from genocide and moving towards equity and justice for all. Let’s all work together to support Native people to reclaim, protect, and restore their land, beginning with 30 percent in California.

— by Rachele Hayward

Acknowledging that I live on the stolen territory of Kashia and Manchester-Point Arena Bands of Pomo Indian people, who were the first Native victims in California of violent displacement from their land by the United States federal government, from 1851-1856. 

Participation in the #LandBack movement starts with the recognition that we live on stolen and colonized Native land. Look it up on this map:

To learn more about places where Indigenous Californians are fighting to regain stewardship of their ancestral lands, live sustainably, and employ their traditional ecological knowledge, check out these links:

To learn more and support Land Back and Indigenous-led environmental and climate justice efforts everywhere, check out: